Audio Guide Essay #1
Intro to African Arts
Mende Sowei Helmet Mask
Type of Object: Helmet mask
Ethnic Group: Mende
Country of Origin: Sierra Leone, Liberia
Materials: wood, pigment
Approximate Age: mid 20th century
Dimensions: 19 inches H. x 14 x 19.5 inches W.
One of the most prominent and intriguing works of art that came out West Africa were the wooden Sowei helmet masks. These masks were beautiful and compelling merely as works of art but they also had important cultural, ritualistic and historic significance. The Sowei masks were only worn by the most important and senior female tribe members during the initiation ceremony of young girls into adulthood. These masks were an essential and central part of the ceremony and it is believed that the “magic” of the ceremony resided in these masks. The specific and fine details of each mask may have varied in some degree dependent on the carving style and location, but they each portrayed the same essential image, an “ideal” feminine beauty.
All of the Sowei masks were carved in secret and were done with great care and detail. Generally each mask displayed an elaborate and detailed hairstyle, with a full wide forehead and diminutive facial features. You will also notice on this mask the large rolls of what appears to be flesh, carved on the back of neck and the head. These rolls of flesh were considered not only attractive but signs of fertility. Though not visible, the neck and or opening of the masks were cut large and wide so that they would fit easily over the woman's head and hair.
Here on this specific Sowei mask, you can see the intricate geometric patterns and designs that were cut into the side of the helmet to represent the elaborate hairstyles worn by the women wearing the masks. The hair in many instances was further adorned with carvings of cowrie shells, diamond shaped amulets, figures and birds. The small openings that were carved for the...